the ground truth and the road to guantanamo

i’ve been trying to write these reviews for days now. these are troubling movies, not only for what they say about the iraq war and the war on terror, but also for the feelings of identification and alienation they evoked in me.

according to the ground truth, the iraq war’s difference from other wars the US fought consists in the fact that a) the psychological conditioning of soldiers to kill people they don’t hate without inhibition has achieved a phenomenal success, b) the enemy is pretty much indistinguishable from the non-inimical civilian, and c) body armor and surgical technologies save many more lives than in past wars but don’t save limbs, faces, and psyches. what you get is a phenomenal, brutal, free-for-all bloodbath and a lot of seriously damaged veterans. none of this is news to any of us, but filmmaker patricia foulkrod gives these known facts the support of some pretty amazing (and shocking) footage, and a remarkable cast of interviewees.

foulkrod alternates training and combat footage (how did she get this stuff?!) with interviews with a small group of young veterans. without telling us more about the soldiers she interviews than their names and ranks, she makes us love them. these guys are great: eloquent, beautiful, and very sad. they all seem able to tell the most terrible stories with no affect at all. they are flat and emptied out, so ravaged by PTSD that they barely hang inside the domain of normality.

ultimately, the ground truth is mostly about the damage fighting a horrible war in horrible conditions does to the soldiers. when a topic is dealt with heart, wisdom, and truth, though, its angle of vision sheds powerful new light on everything it touches. i’ve seen footage of mistreated iraqi civilians before, but they never shocked me as much as here, where they brought me to tears and sobs. in a seemingly ordinary arrest scene, you see soldiers barging into a home and taking away an old man. the man has a limp, so the soldiers support him while he makes his slow way to the door. it is almost a kind gesture. at the same time, they shout to the screaming women to stand back. then they put one of those hoods that have come to signify the dishonor of this war more than just about any other symbol on his head. when the camera turns to the hooded old man, your heart breaks. these young guys are people who have lost all moorings, all sense of where is up, what is solid, what is okay and what is not. they have gone too far and have no way of coming back. in another scene, a soldier recalls with the same eerie flat affect about a supposedly “major al quaeda prisoner” who arrives to the base after having been hung by his hands from a tree for three days. his hands are gangrenous and have to be amputated. the man is quietly released two weeks later.

foulkrod spends a lot of time on the soldiers’ lives back home and this is really powerful stuff. they no longer have a place except on the battlefield, running over iraqi kids with their tanks for kicks. it is really interesting when the wives are brought in — they are amazing, dealing with unimaginable mental devastation in people they love and on whom they rely with great courage. this war’s trauma is not something that affects the soldiers alone. as one of them says, they, the returning vets, are all around us: it could be a kid sitting quietly at the back of your class, it could be anyone. one of them, a strapping guy who’s lost his arm and understandably feels pretty shitty about it, says that once someone asked him how he came to lose his arm. in the war, he said. what war? the iraq war. oh, the person said, i didn’t know it was still going on.

this will seriously sock you in the stomach, but i found it the best iraq war documentary i’ve seen thus far.

i liked the road to guantanamo very much, too, though it is a very different sort of film. the three tipton men who became famous for their bizarre and tragic capture and detention in cuba tell their stories to the cameras while they are reenacted by actors. i didn’t expect the reenactment to be so good. the actors are great and the film is convincing and well made. while the ground truth is sick-making and depressing, i found the road to guantanamo to be strangely encouraging. maybe it’s that i have come to think of guantanamo and other similar “war on terror” detention centers to be inescapable places in which the only way out is suicide (which is why i found it very upsetting when i heard that extraordinary anti-suicide measures are taken in the camps: committing to keeping people alive while torturing them indefinitely seems to me the highest possible cruelty). but these guys made it out. not only did they get physically out, something probably due only to their british citizenship thus irrelevant to most of the other people held there; they seemed strong — the imprisonment, the torture, and the randomness of their fates did not destroy them. as they speak directly to the camere, they all seem pleasant, clear-eyed, calm, and soft-spoken, and their ordeal seems to have made them tough in a good, solid, healthy way. they don’t even look angry. it must have taken a lot of courage to expose themselves so much to the camera. this strenght, though, emerges mostly from the reenactment, so it’s hard to judge whether these guys are as mentally healthy as the film claims they are. but if they are, well, it’s good.

watching these documentaries back to back, and putting myself in these guys’ shoes (the soldiers’s, the tipton three’s), I feel unsurprised that the american soldiers seem to suffer from PTSD more severely than the british guys who spent two years at guantanamo. is this unconscious racism on my part? am I thinking that of course brown people can stand abuse better! isn’t that what they have been used to all of their lives? this clearly is racist and stupid. I just finished reading kiran desai’s the inheritance of loss, about which I’ll write in textualities, and some passages in it seem to shed light on the fragility that characterizes all of us who live in the west. our lives seem to be more rarified and precarious, hanging on a tenuous balance of job satisfaction, personal contentment, and the fulfillment of our desires. desai has some beautiful things to say about all this. but of course the tipton three are westerners! yet, I cannot imagine our corn-fed, tough marines surviving a day in guantanamo. more to the point, I cannot imagine myself surviving a day at guantanamo, whereas I can imagine myself, unfortunately, being brainwashed into becoming a killing monster. is it easier for me to imagine an active rather than a passive role, though both are dehumanizing and deeply traumatic? and if so, has this anything to do with the fact that I live and breathe an individualistic, freedom-obsessed culture? or has it more to do with the films and stories i have been told all through my life?

am I being racist?

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